Archive for August, 2003

day sixty eight b

I have been here 65 days and it has rained 4 of them. That means that there’s a 6% chance that it was raining on a given day. I have had my clothes washed three times and twice it has rained hard the same day. That means that there’s a 66% chance that it will rain on a day when my clothes are washed.

I’ve decided to forgo the computer stuff and what-not and simply travel Mauritania having my clothes washed. I plan on using God’s apparent enjoyment of wetting my laundry to turn this country into a fertile jungle. =)

And if I didn’t mention, after a rain this country is a giant sauna. They don’t even take the shrimp to a restaurant in Nouakchott, they just wave them in the air for a bit and they’re steamed. It’s only 90 right now, but I can’t lean over the computer because I keep dripping sweat onto it. Yuck.


Steph told me that my shit banana joke got lost somewhere in the ether. I’ve been screwing with my mail so much over the last couple days that there’s no telling where it went.

I was just commenting that having a significant other back in the States was definitely the way to go if doing something like this. It is really great to have someone to talk with and email with and to send you packages and all that. Also, when you run out of deodorant it’s nice to not have to care that you are ripening like a banana made of shit. =)

I had heard in the past about the hygienic practices in Europe and that in particular deodorant was a more American penchant. I have found that to hold true here to the extent that I don’t think I can even buy deodorant in Kaédi. I found a boutique with good soap and one with Colgate, but other than some colognes to cover the stink not much in the deodorant department.

I’m almost certain that I’ll be able to find something in Nouakchott, but for now I’m pretty content just being a little funky. I noticed a certain inner glow to the volunteers when I arrived and I’m now learning that glow can just as easily come from without. =)


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day sixty eight c

On the subject of buying stuff, I have learned that there is a cookbook compiled by past volunteers of different things that can be produced in country. Unfortunately it was stored on a disk which died. That means there is one copy and it is paper. One thing I am going to play with after stage is getting it back into the computer and sharing it with everyone.

I’m all about the making of ice cream when I am in Nouakchott. I heard from Andy it was possible and I’ve found something in the neighborhood of evaporated milk. Ice creamy goodness, here I come. =)


Other interesting news, I was talking with someone yesterday who was talking about people leaving. The ed volunteers get to leave three months earlier than everyone else because school ends and if they want they can ship out. Apparently though everyone here gets to leave a month early if they want because Mauritania is one of four or five “hardship countries” which the PC considers enough of a bitch to live in that people get a bonus.

I talked to a girl who is here as a UN volunteer. She was here 4 years ago as a PC volunteer and she said that at the end of her service she went for 5 months down the coast to Kenya. There are some people who will be COSing soon that are planning on through hiking the Appalachian Trail after their service. Hell, after living here camping for six months would be cake.

Right now my plans are along the lines of check out what I can get to of Africa while I’m here. Go up to Paris next summer to see mom, dad, Sharon and Steph. At the end wander my way up into Europe and do the whole hosteling thing for a bit. Between English and French I figure I’ll be able to get around alot of it.


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day sixty eight d

So, what I am supposed to be doing right now (and for the last three days) is getting my class ready. I will be giving a class tomorrow afternoon all in French about the parts of a computer. I’m doing the same class that I did before because it is something that alot of people don’t know, but that it can be useful information.

For example Sharon was talking about how computer being out of memory. (Which hopefully Brett has dealt with.) =) She wasn’t familiar with the two kinds of memory that a computer has and so couldn’t really describe the problem to me. Knowing just the basics of what is going on under the hood can be helpful at times.

So, I have written the whole thing out in English and now I am going back through and translating it. Most of it I could probably fake if I did it off the cuff, but to really know that I can say all of it takes doing this.

Also writing is really good to make sure that I really know it. It is easy to fudge speaking, but with writing I’ve really got to know it. I’ve already done a little writing to Kaitrin in French and I’m planning on starting with Steph once my French gets a little stronger. I figure if she’s going to come bum around Paris with me it’ll be more fun if she’s got the French going on.

So, my presentation as it takes form is at:

One of the many things that I did other than work on it is play with the stylesheets. If you have a browser that can do it you can change the stylesheet. (Mozilla, Netscape, Opera, Konquerer, etc. (anything but IE I think and maybe 6 does it.)) It also has to do the css2 selectors, (which again all but IE do) because each paragraph has a “lang” attribute and you can change stylesheets to turn different languages on and off.

Well, it is getting late and I’m only about halfway through. I’m trying to write something to explain the human psychology ideas of “short-term” and “long-term” memory so I can use them as analogues. I ought to get on it.


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day sixty eight a

Ok, I lied about the unicode stuff a bit. =) I thought that how emacs was saving the é character. I was looking at how emacs was saving it and it was 0x81 0xE9, which I thought was utf-8. I don’t have access to the utf-8 codepages, but it seems like the 0x81 0xE9 is emacs internal format. UTF-8 is 0xC3 0xA9 apparently.

I learned this when the message I sent yesterday was all screwed up. Pine really doesn’t seem to like sending and recieving international messages.

As a note, to change emacs encoding system you use:
M-x set-buffer-file-coding-system
C-x RET f

To see what the current encoding system is you use:

So, if your terminal is iso-8859-1 you should see A with a ~ and a “latin s with caron” (it looks like a copyright on my screen) (é) instead of a é.

Btw, there is a handy little hexeditor called hexedit in redhat 9. It is just like hexdump -C except interactive. A handy program for dealing with character sets is iconv. Honestly, I am disappointed with pine that all it does is say “this message is a different character set; it may not look right.”


P.S. I’d like to plug mutt for all the console using linux people. Pine kept screwing up the encoding and decoding. It splits certain bytes on sending, but not others and just generally doesn’t let me tell it what to do. The message I sent before was translated to something other than the straight unicode bytes when it was sent and pine doesn’t display it right. (Mutt displays it correctly though, so ymmv.)

I’d looked at mutt before on a Debian box because pine doesn’t come there by default (its free beer but not free speech,) but it looked really simple and difficult to use. It turns out that what is really going on is it is much more configurable and can do alot more than pine, it just doesn’t hold your hand.

Some very handy things are the ability to define “hooks” (like in emacs) to execute arbitrary command when certain mailboxes are entered or when certain messages are read or whatever. The other handy thing is the ability to define key scripts (called macros) which will execute a set of commands. They can be customized to only run on certain screens like the message index or when reading a message.

I played for about two hours and had mutt doing everything I did in pine and some others as well. =)

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list serve for people in country (and interested)

There is another listserv that exists that has all of us trainees on it. There isn’t much traffic on it, but we sometimes pass around notes like when someone finds out some interesting news or when someone starts a webpage or something like that.

I’ve had a couple requests from family members of people to be on that list and so we are going to start adding people. If you are interested, just send mail to with the subject “subscribe”. (Or just e-mail me.)


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day sixty six a

Tech geeky lesson for the morning… I’m going off to try and find a wedding in about an hour, but I have a little time to kill. This morning I’ve been learning about how the computer represents information because I was contemplating trying to write a page that had the names of barnyard animals in both English, French and Hassinya. The rub is that Hassinya is written using Arabic characters (I’ve heard estimates that the two languages share about 80% of their vocabulary.) I don’t know how to make the computer type Arabic characters though, and so I’ve been learning.

A side affect of this is it may be useful to some of you to learn why some of my emails don’t look right when I use accented characters in French.

To start at the beginning, to a computer the only thing that matters is bits. A string of 1’s and 0’s that it interprets and makes into useful information. A computer has no idea what the letter “A” is. All it knows is bits, so some standard correlation between bits and “A” has to be set up.

The most common way currently is called the American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) and it breaks the string of bits into blocks of 8 (8 bits = 1 byte) and then has a standard mapping between each byte and a letter or punctuation mark. For example, the letter capitol a (“A”) is the bits 01000001.

A side note on numbers and computers. We usually count in decimal (base 10). Computers think in binary (base 2) and the numbers are usually prefixed with a 0b since decimal 11 looks exactly like binary 11 (which is 3 in decimal). So I would write 0b11 so it is clear it is binary. Another problem is that strings of bits can get really long, so sometimes they are written as hexadecimal (base 16, written prefaced with 0x) which works well because a set of 4 bits can represent 0-F which are the characters for a hexadecimal number like 0-9 are for decimal:

0b00 = 0 = 0x0 0b100 = 4 = 0x4 0b1000 = 8 = 0x8 0b1100 = 12 = 0xC
0b01 = 1 = 0x1 0b101 = 5 = 0x5 0b1001 = 9 = 0x9 0b1101 = 13 = 0xD
0b10 = 2 = 0x2 0b110 = 6 = 0x6 0b1010 = 10 = 0xA 0b1110 = 14 = 0xE
0b11 = 3 = 0x1 0b111 = 7 = 0x7 0b1011 = 11 = 0xB 0b1111 = 15 = 0xF

Ok, to continue, in ASCII the letters A-Z are the codes 0x41-0x5A and a-z are 0x61-0x7A. Pretty simple. The problem is there are no codes for letters like é or ö or š¡É.

There’s a standard called “unicode” that aims to set up encodings for almost all the characters in the world. (There are some really interesting statistics on what exactly this entails since some languages like Chinese have hundreds of thousands of characters. In particular since the language has been developing since long before Christ was born, there are thousands of dialects that have fallen out of usage, but there are still ancient documents written using them.)

One way that unicode deals with this is to simply increase the number of bits for each letter. One byte = eight bits = 2^8 (256) possibilities. Two bytes = sixteen bits = 2^16 (65536) possibilities. There are a couple problems. One is that it doubles the size of any text, but more importantly it breaks all existing files completely since when they are read in they are interpreted as pairs of bytes rather than single bytes.

The way that both of these problems is addressed is by doing “multi-byte” encoding. Instead of each letter being a certain number of bits, some letters are 8 bits, some 16, some 24 and some 32. What makes this possible is that ASCII is a 7-bit code, meaning that only 7 of the 8 bits in a byte are used. (It goes from 0b00000000 to 0b01111111.)

That means that they simply assign the existing ASCII encodings to bytes which start with 0. Bytes which start with a 1 then are interpreted to mean “this byte and the next one are a letter.” The most popular encoding which does this is utf-8.

Some programs are not smart enough to do utf-8 though and will generally try to decode the file using iso-8859-1 which is another encoding that uses the same lower 7 bits as ASCII, but then adds 128 new characters for the bytes that start with 1.

There are more workarounds though to make things generally look right on western screens. For example the é character in utf-8 is 0b10000001 (0x81) 0b11101001 (0xE9). So, the é would be interpreted as the two characters 0x81 (which is an invisible control character and doesn’t make anything happen on the screen) and 0xE9 (which is the é character in iso-8859-1.) (Actually, all the iso-8859-1 characters work like that, so things in utf-8 will look right.)

If I wanted to stick in a little Chinese (‘ÈՑ±¾‘º£) those three characters are 9 bytes, so there’s no way for anything to happen other than for them to be misinterpreted. The bytes are:

0x91 (invisible)
0xC8 È
0xD5 Õ
0x91 (invisible)
0xB1 ±
0xBE ¾
0x91 (invisible)
0xBA º
0xA3 £

So, if you see Chinese in between the parenthesis you are decoding using utf-8, and if you see other stuff like below you are using iso-8859-1. (It is also possible you might see little boxes if you have no Chinese font on your computer.)

The other problem that I am having now is that Linux uses utf-8 for international stuff and I am getting the occasional message in French encoded in iso-8859-1 (also called latin-1). What happens then is the accented letters are misinterpreted as the first byte of a multibyte pair, and it ends up eating the next character after the letter as well as displaying the wrong letter.

Well, anyhow, that’s a little on internationalization. Thanks for listening. Talking it out helped me to understand what is going on.


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day sixty three a

Emotional expressiveness is something I have been noticing alot here. It is like they are minus a layer of veneer that we have back home. People get in very animated arguments and are waving their hands and raising their voices all the time. It’s not fighting though, it’s just how people discuss.

One of the places I have really liked seeing it is with the baby. Just about everyone who comes by plays with the baby. They pick it up and make all sorts of noises and sing little songs. It is true of both the men and the women. People seeming self conscious about their appearance is not something that I have really seen in my family (which is black moor.)

Habib actually entertains me because he sort of acts prissy sometimes, which is fine and all, but the environment isn’t really conducive to maintaining the image. I remember watching a documentary about the palace at Versailles which was built without plumbing. So, people who had to go to the bathroom would often simply squat in the corner and make a little poopie. =) You’d have women (and men) who spent hours primping and getting ready, but at the end of it all they were walking down halls full of shit.

It is just funny because he will act as though his sensibilities are very delicate, but I’ve seen the hole he craps in and the concrete floor is bed is on.

On the subject of veneer though, I’ve also definitely seen the most abusive behavior here as well. The other day my host father smacked my brother, Omar, several times about the head hard. I was actually angered to see and wanted to tell him to stop. Omar is maybe five and he is a really good kid. Always very soft spoken, but very helpful. Whenever I leave the may under the tree and move over to the patio or go to my room a couple minutes later Omar will come trailing along carrying my notebook or water bottle or anything I forgot.

The new lamb that I mentioned a couple days ago, some nights Omar will have to put the rope around its neck to hold it. It is very comical to watch because the lamb comes up to about Omar’s stomach and he’ll have to try and wrestle it down to get the rope around its neck.

Omar isn’t the child of Mousah and Momah (my parents) he is the son of Mousah’s little sister, who lives in Nouakchott, and I wonder if that has anything to do with the difference in his treatment, or if it is just an age thing.

I suppose as I am here more I’ll get to see.


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day sixty three d

When Brett was little, around twelve I think, I charged him with the task of creating a form of instantaneous transportation. I said that if he would do that they I would either to world peace or cheap, clean and plentiful power.

I’ve been reconsidering his assignment and think now that it might be better for him to do a better way for people to wipe their asses. I’ve now got pretty extensive experience with the two most common forms and I am certain there is room for improvement.

Build a better mousetrap? Fuck that. =)


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day sixty three c

I’ve been thinking alot about language (being surrounded by languages I don’t understand all the time and all.)

I had a very cool experience two nights ago. I was sitting around with my family and there were alot of people around. Generally when there are alot of people around everyone speaks Hassinya because that is the first (and strongest) language of most people in this area. After a while the conversation switched to French and I was happy because I could now follow what was going on. The reaction was instantaneous and the recognition that I was happy to hear French (which was unintelligible a month ago) came after and was very heartening.

Last night I went to a birthday party for another stagier, Catherine, and I spent about 15 minutes chatting with her host brother about his experiences and interests and what not. Nothing remarkable in the conversation, but to be able to have it in French with the music making it difficult to hear was cool.

I went to a more advanced class for some discussion this morning. One of the interesting words I learned is concubinage which is what the French use for cohabitation. The verb cohabiter exists, but it means to room with as in roommates. The class was cool in general because I was having to work to keep up and I like that. We talked about issues beyond what we did yesterday and what we like eating. =)


A linguistic study I would be interested in seeing is how the genderedness of a language correlates to the rigidity of gender roles in a society. For example I learned that Arabic has eleven personal pronouns (I, you, he, etc.) because there is one for each gender for each case except the first person singular (I).

Nouns are also gendered in Arabic like in French. This is something I am glad English doesn’t have. If I ever have access to a time machine one of the things on my list to do is go back and find the guy who first decided that we’re going to make a wall masculine, a rock feminine, a tree masculine, etc… I’m going to find him and shake him real hard until he sees that is an absolutely stupid idea and changes it.

(Hassinya, if I haven’t mentioned, is an Arabic dialect.)


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day sixty three b

Poop journal, be forewarned…

By far my worst experiences here have had to with a lack of toilets. I was stricken again yesterday, and to not go into it at length, one of the big advantages to a boubou is it hangs down to cover the seat of your pants. Granted I don’t have a boubou, but that is why it would have been nice for the walk between Habib’s house and my own. (Yeah, ick, I know.)

The problem is that there isn’t a place for makaresh storage like you might think there would be. The same pot is used for butt washing as hand washing and ablutions before prayer, and so it gets carried all over and left various places. So, you must hunt down the pot, then find some water for it, and then make it out to the hole. Sometimes this is just too much time. =)

Did I tell the poop story from Nouakchott? I forget. Gile and I were lying on matellas talking one night and one of the kids walks up right in front of us and drops a surprisingly big load about a foot away from us. The child had to weight about 1/3 less after this endeavor because it wasn’t a very big kid, but he certainly gave it his all. (So to speak.)


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